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Three ways to demotivate unethical behavior using behavioral science

Following through with personal, business, and compliance-related New Year’s resolutions can be tricky. Changing behavior requires, among other things, motivation. Let’s explore how you can motivate good things and demotivate bad things in yourself and others using the insights from the Personality Systems Interactions (PSI) theory.

There is no lack of scientific literature on motivation, with a bewildering number of different theories and constructs. It’s easy to get lost in all that. PSI theory, developed by Professor Julius Kuhl, works as an overarching framework for analyzing the architecture of human motivation and personality functioning. Integrating traditional personality and motivation theories into seven levels, PSI is a comprehensive framework for understanding human motivation.

The theory is great, but what about the practical side? That is a fair question. Here are three PSI-based tips on demotivating the unwanted behaviors in your company:

First, work on the level of habits. What are habits exactly? Simple, automated behavioral programs you can unwind with even when it’s not fun. For example, brushing your teeth in the evening is easy for many people, even if they do not feel like it.

Habits are the simplest forms of behavior control. A simple habit works according to the scheme of stimulus-response coupling: as soon as a suitable trigger stimulus appears (e.g., 8 pm), there is an automatic reaction to it (e.g., brushing your teeth).

In a corporate setting, business processes belong to the level of habits once established. Documented processes represent long sequences of stimulus-response links with clearly defined calls for action and activity, especially if parts of the process are automated. As we all know, corporate habits can also form outside of business processes. Or employees may sometimes choose to ignore or alter specific process steps. To mitigate this risk, business process improvements should be seen as a part of the daily job – more on that below.

Second, keep employee stress levels in check. Science says holistic thinking is associated with a relaxed mood. Wait, but why does it matter from an ethical perspective? Excessive stress can weaken higher cognitive functions, such as analytical and holistic thinking, which are necessary to make ethical decisions.

Let’s be honest; even the best business processes may contain steps that call for ethical considerations. Or your employees may encounter an ethical scenario the company has not anticipated. In either case, this is the moment to keep a cool head and process the information in an integrative and ethical way in the company’s best interest. So, you get it – pressures don’t help.

Third, allow anything to be challenged safely. This point has a lot to do with the trendy topic of psychological safety at the workplace, but we have a different take on it.

The thing is – standard business processes are conscious thinking forms. By default, they offer less flexibility than intuitive thinking forms and can never represent the company’s overall knowledge and experience. Employees note these limitations, and this may take a serious toll on their motivation to comply. That may drive the risk of cutting corners leading to ethical lapses.

The solution? Put in place the mechanisms for raising concerns over outdated/irrelevant policies and standards, fostering a safe environment where everything can be challenged and improved. Some companies go to great lengths with this and even set up tribunals for outdated policies, with a Chief Compliance Officer dressed up as a judge. The policies found “guilty” would then be amended.


Barbara R. Siegenthaler, Attorney at Law, CIA, PSI Expert, pictured above left, has more than 15 years’ experience in a global insurance company. She’s the founder of Savanteon, a boutique consultancy that provides advice on conduct risk and human centric organizations and societies. She also has experience in art law and Swiss family law. Barbara speaks German, English and French.

Vera Cherepanova, FCCA, CIA, MSc, above right, has more than 10 years’ experience as a compliance officer. She’s the founder of Studio Etica, a boutique consultancy that provides advice on corporate ethics and compliance programs to companies around the world. She speaks English, French, Italian, and Russian.

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